Bad Questions

Remember the awful thought exercise —

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to observe it, does it make a sound?

*barf* right? When I was a child I used to think of the Universe and how big it is and how everything that exists is inside it. But then what’s outside that? Well that is still part of the Universe, but then what’s outside that? And so on until my child brain was tired.

Well let me ask a much more potent version of that thought exercise —

If humans never existed, would the Universe still exist? Would it matter whether it existed or not?

Is this a bad question? While a question like this might take you into a deep, thoughtful and amusing place, it is a classic bad question. This does not mean you should not contemplate on such questions and derive the entertainment from it (stay far away from people who discourage such thoughts even if it’s a bad question). But it is a bad question in that no fruitful conclusion can come from it. It will not lead you to develop your mind in any meaningful way and it is utterly incapable of presenting itself to any scientific methods of evaluation.

Consider a two-dimensional being in a square plane; lets call it Toody. It can wander about endlessly in the plane. Now imagine if that square plane was just one side of cube. As a 3 dimensional being you would be able to observe Toody on one side. But Toody is stuck in that one plane, unable to break through the edge onto the next side. Like a fruit fly trapped in a funnel, unable to cross over the edge on to the outer side.

In the same vein, we are unable to comprehend beyond certain boundaries of thought. Spending a lot of time on this is wasteful (although a little probing is fun and creative). Not knowing that other sides exist on this cube is the end of the road. That lack of knowledge needs no further investigation because you don’t know that you don’t know it.

But as in the analogy, a higher order being maybe able to see beyond what we see. But even if they do, there is no meaningful way to communicate that to us (imagine trying to communicate to Toody that there is another side of the cube). But even then it still is a useless venture as we don’t know how many orders of higher beings there are. And more importantly, the existence of other dimensional beings can neither be proven nor disproven.

The reason I’m writing about bad questions is that they are often used as an argument against reasoning. “You don’t know everything”, “science doesn’t have all the answers” and “how do you explain existence” are some examples. These are bad questions and often hint at the existence of some supernatural entity that supposedly knows everything. So you might as well stop trying to figure out the nature of things and pray for an answer.

Now I’m not interested in disproving the existence of that entity here. Perhaps your view of God is a higher dimensional being capable of perceiving the Universe in a fundamentally different way or perhaps you believe in this omnipotent, omniscient and all-knowing entity. And to be fair, there are bad questions that exist on the opposite side too —

Can God make a rock so heavy that He can’t lift it?

Even for a person of faith, I don’t wish for you to wrestle with an answer to that question as it is again, a futile exercise.

Another classic example is “Give me a list of things you don’t know.” You’ll be surprised at how often variations of this question come up in everyday interactions. Usually the person asking this question will scoff at the suggestion that we don’t know what we don’t know and that’s okay. I’m not suggesting that people don’t forget something or purposefully avoid exhausting possibilities. That does happen but fundamentally the question is flawed.

What I am interested in furthering is the acknowledgement of our boundaries of thought and being comfortable with it. New science is constantly testing these boundaries with theories such as quantum physics, dark matter and subatomic particle research.

The other reason for this topic is to understand reference frames better and the nature of objective reality. Remember Toody? It leads a peaceful life on its plane of reality, it reproduces by meeting another 2D being and forming a line, ages by fading to grey and eventually dies by completely fading to nothingness. Toody does not know that there are 3 dimensions and that there are other sides on the cube. This does not make it wrong about everything. Its reality is not wrong, lies, bad or evil; it is simply its reality. And it does not have to be your reality. The reference frame decides our objective realities. Change the frame and the reality changes. It is subjective with reference to the frame.

The Nazis really believed that Jews were evil and should be eliminated until a different reference frame was placed on their collective mindsets by the alliance. You may point out that ethnic cleansing of any sort is evil so it is an example of an ultimate objective reality that transcends reference frames. Great point and one that is hard to argue against.

The way I wrap my head around a counter argument is another classic thought experiment where you are in charge of a railway track switcher. A train is approaching; on one track there is one kid and on another there are three kids. Currently the switch is set to send the train over the three kids. Will you switch the tracks? The person asking this question will typically respond based on your answer as follows — if you choose to leave it alone then it is your fault that more kids died because of your inaction, but if you choose to switch the tracks, then it will be revealed to you that one of the three kids you saved went on to become Hitler.

Reality works in very much the same way as this thought experiment. You make a decision based on your subjective reality and that is the only thing you can do. Note that you can still make a good or a bad decision given the facts you have (I’m definitely not suggesting that things are preordained for you). You can do a more thorough research about the facts or you can do little research. You can ask for advice from elders and experts or take a decision without consulting others. But this reality can change and on a long enough timescale, objective realities become obsolete. An asteroid may collide with and eradicate an entire planet of sentient organisms. Was that a bad asteroid? All we are left with are our own subjective realities and we work with it. We build our morals from patterns that emerge from our collective subjective realities. If you like apples and I like peaches, we don’t have to kill each other and on the same lines, if you think murder is wrong and I do too, we can make a law about it.

I want you to know that I’m not a scientist and that there are several people I know personally who are more intelligent than I am. My approach in writing this article has been to project my thoughts in terms simple enough for the majority of readers to understand fully. There are two dozen articles written about this subject by people far more qualified than I am and you should seek them out if you’re itching for hard science.

Finally, if you find yourself being asked a bad question, remember that you don’t have to have an answer. That does not make you weak or lose an argument. And I hope this article helps you form a better response to bad questions.